A GP whose patient tried to kill himself after a “fitness for work” test is urging the government to introduce a way to allow doctors to report such cases to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Dr Stephen Carty, medical adviser to the user-led campaign group Black Triangle, says he believes many other GPs have patients who have experienced similar levels of mental distress as a result of being put through the work capability assessment (WCA).
He said that introducing a reporting mechanism – in which GPs could pass details to the DWP – was the only way to build up a picture of the true impact of the WCA.
Disabled activists have been pointing to links between the WCA and relapses, episodes of self-harm and even suicides and other deaths among those being assessed, but the DWP has so far refused to acknowledge the issue.
Dr Carty, who works in Leith, on the edge of Edinburgh, spoke out as fellow GPs from across Britain voted unanimously at their annual conference in Liverpool to scrap the tests. They were voting on a motion he had submitted to the annual conference of Scottish GPs in March, which also voted overwhelmingly in favour.
One of his patients, David*, who has bipolar disorder and a heroin addiction, has agreed to his case details being passed to Disability News Service.
Dr Carty had told the DWP last October – as part of David’s DLA claim – that his patient had significant mental health problems, had had a recent heroin relapse and had been suicidal, with an unstable and “very low” mood, and had difficulty dressing, washing and feeding himself.
Dr Carty made it clear to the DWP that he did not think that “the additional burden or threat of withdrawal of benefits would be therapeutic for him, indeed it could be harmful”.
David was subsequently granted DLA for another five years, but was then told that he would be tested as part of the national programme to use the WCA to reassess about 1.5 million people claiming incapacity benefit, and check their eligibility for the new employment and support allowance (ESA).
But the information from his DLA form about the fragile state of his health was not passed to Atos Healthcare, the company which carries out the assessments, or to ESA decision-makers in the DWP.
After receiving a letter telling him he would have to attend a WCA on 24 April, David tried to postpone the test because he was so unwell, but was told by Atos that he could only delay it for a week, and if he didn’t attend he could have his benefits halted.
When he attended the WCA, he says the interview was focused on his physical health, and appeared to ignore his mental health condition.
Afterwards, he was so distressed that he bought a large quantity of heroin – two-and-a-half grams – and tried to kill himself with an overdose. He only came round 26 hours later.
As a result of David’s experiences and those of other patients, Dr Carty wants the government to introduce a system in which GPs can alert the DWP to people whose health has been harmed as a result of being assessed.
He said: “I think there should be a reporting mechanism for circumstances such as this and there isn’t.”
He added: “I don’t think there is anything unusual about my experience. Anecdotally, speaking to other GPs, this is the sort of thing that is happening elsewhere.”
The DWP has so far declined to comment.
*Not his real name
24 May 2012